The 2018 election will be remembered for the rise of fake news

The Superior Electoral Court had three presiding justices this year – and each stressed the need to counter the power of fake news on voters’ minds. The court created a committee to monitor online campaigning (which didn’t hold a single meeting during the first-round campaign). If the 2018 election will be remembered for one thing, it will be for the rise of fake news.

This week, members of the Superior Electoral Court will meet with the two remaining presidential campaigns to discuss the spreading of fake information, and will have a conference call with WhatsApp representatives. But it might be too little, too late.

On Sunday, October 7, Brazilians headed to the polls for the first round of the 2018 elections. That weekend alone, fact-checking agency Aos Fatos debunked 12 rumors that combined for 1.17 million shares on Facebook. Among these falsehoods, the pieces which had the most traction were those related to fraudulent electronic voting machines. Rumors around that subject amassed at least 844,300 shares.

No other topic generated as much engagement. An example of other pieces of fake news with much, much fewer shares was a doctored picture of actor Rodrigo Santoro (Love Actually, Lost) wearing a t-shirt in support of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. While the photo montage attracted 57,000 shares, it paled in comparison with conspiracy theories surrounding voting machines.

However, measuring the reach of fake news through Facebook shares might not be the best metric, as the go-to vector of disinformation in this electoral season is WhatsApp Messenger – a closed platform. That’s why it is impossible to know exactly how many people have been affected by falsehoods. According to Facebook’s official data from June, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network had 127 million monthly active users in Brazil. Meanwhile, WhatsApp had 120 million active users in the country.

The number of shares Aos Fatos has compiled refers only to those profiles which actually engaged in disseminating distorted or flat-out false content on Facebook. Taking into account that information can be seen by dozens – or hundreds – of other profiles on different platforms, the number of people exposed to the various types of disinformation checked by Aos Fatos should be closer to the tens of millions.

The most-shared piece of fake news

During the weekend of the first round of the election, the most-shared rumor was one “denouncing” that an electronic voting machine autocompleted votes for Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad. Propelled by a tweet from senator-elect Flávio Bolsonaro (son of Jair Bolsonaro), the piece of disinformation was shared at least 732,100 times on Facebook between October 7 and 12. The tweet, however, has been deleted.

Another hit on social media talked about a Federal Police bust of a van with 152 voting machines, “among which 121 were tampered with votes for Haddad,” says the hoax. When checked by Aos Fatos, the message had already been shared over 41,800 times on Facebook alone. On Friday, even with the social network’s news verification tools, shares surpassed the 60,000 mark.

Aos Fatos is a member organization of the International Fact-Checking Network and is part of Facebook’s news verification initiative, alongside Agência Lupa. Since August, the agency has published 81 fact-checks on distorted or flat-out false information related to the election on open social networks – such as Facebook and Twitter – or closed platforms – such as WhatsApp. Rumors are usually spread in six forms, in the following order: manipulated images and audio clips, distorted or false phrases about candidates, false complaints of voter fraud (tampered machines, defrauded ballots, or fraudulent polls), fake information about the electoral legislation, and fake cases of political violence or protests.

Fact-checks were selected from demands in Facebook’s news verification tool and from suggestions by readers through WhatsApp. Since the amount of disinformation is much larger than Aos Fatos‘s fact-checking capacity, editors created a formula to hierarchize editorial priorities: the main targets are rumors with more engagement potential on social media – i.e. pieces with more visible shares on Facebook, or which were tipped by more than ten people on a single day.

Below are the main pieces of disinformation and fake news during the weekend of the first round vote:

Voting machines are programmed to autocomplete votes for Fernando Haddad
(732,100 shares)

Feds arrest van with 152 voting machines, 121 of which were tampered with in favor of Haddad
(60,000 shares)

[Rodrigo Santoro] never needed [fiscal benefits to thrive]. He’s the best-known Brazilian artist in Hollywood. Here’s the difference [between him and left-wing artists]
(57,000 shares)

[Former Lula’s Finance Minister Antonio] Palocci said electoral results were decided by [the Workers’ Party’s] top brass. Voting machines were used to defraud the elections. What is the Superior Electoral Court going to say now?
(52,200 shares)

Ciro Gomes declares himself an ENEMY of the Catholic Church
(50,500 shares)

[Openly gay Congressman] Jean Wyllys will be the future Minister of Education in Workers’ Party’s Haddad government
(50,000 shares)

Ciro Gomes: “Women must shut up and not say a peep. The only role of my woman is to sleep with me”
(48,000 shares)

[Federal University of Minas Gerais] alumni protest naked against candidate Bolsonaro
(45,000 shares)

Flavio Bolsonaro wore t-shirt saying “Movement for [people from the northeast] to return home. Rio is not a place for donkeys”
(18,000 shares)

Father Fábio de Melo [a famous religious leader]: “We live in a time when they want priests to get married and married people to get divorced. They want straight people to have informal relationships, but gays to get married in a church”
(8,000 shares)

Campaign spending: Meirelles: BRL 45 million; Alckmin: BRL 32 million; Haddad BRL 29 million; Ciro: BRL 10 million; Marina: BRL 4 million; Bolsonaro: a Wi-fi package
(8,000 shares)

Don’t go to the polls wearing anything that can identify you as a Bolsonaro supporter, because as soon as you cast your ballot poll workers may mark your name and nullify your ballot
(No metrics on Facebook; went viral on WhatsApp)

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BY Tai Nalon

Tai is executive director and co-founder of Aos Fatos.

BY Ana Rita Cunha

Ana Rita Cunha is a report at Aos Fatos